family values

Perhaps because our household has a landline and is therefore Officially Old, we’re getting dozens of calls a week aimed at a conservative “Family Values” voting contingent. I always let the robo-caller play through in hopes that at least I’m keeping them busy for 90 seconds, and I always answer the surveys and push-polls. The thought that my unexpected, unwanted response makes a tiny bump in their data pleases me. And if there’s an actual human on the other end, I always — always — let them know that my values are family values, just not the kind they espouse.

So let’s talk about Family Values. I’m tired of that phrase being claimed solely by conservative forces. I have a family, and I have values, and my Family Values are just as valid as anyone’s.

I value education. I value science. I value equality for all our citizens regardless of race, class, gender, or orientation. I value cultural diversity. I value my rights as recognized — not given, not bestowed, recognized — in the Constitution. I value freedom of religion — including freedom from religion. I value civil discourse, even about inflammatory issues. I value individual reproductive rights, including the right to choose abortion. I value equality and freedom.

This election season, local ads from anti-equality committees frantically urge us not to let the upcoming vote “redefine marriage.” I’m quite pleased that they’re framing the issue that way. See, I’m all for for periodically redefining marriage, and I bet most Americans feel the same way if they really examine the historical and ongoing redefinition of marriage.

Think of how our laws have redefined marriage just in the the past century. Married women now have the right to own property and to maintain their own bank accounts. Single adults can legally and readily obtain birth control. Spousal rape is now a prosecutable offense rather than a right or a punchline.

That last one particularly stands as a shining example of “redefining marriage”. Until the mid-1970s, there was no process or statute by which to prosecute a spouse — even an estranged spouse — for rape. The marriage license constituted an exemption (in many statutes, an explicit exemption) from rape prosecution; it was a license for even an alienated spouse to force intercourse upon their partner. As recently as 1993, North Carolina upheld this exemption from prosecution for marital rape. In a generation, our nation as a whole has transitioned from explicitly permitting spousal rape to making it a criminal offense. This is a vast shift in our understanding of consent, sexuality, and privileged entitlement, and a redefinition of the rights and responsibilities bestowed by marriage.

Every time we update our outmoded marriage statutes, we make strides for greater equality. It’s appallingly improper to let civil rights be decided by popular vote, but if this vote — this “redefinition” — helps to shift the tide for progress, then let’s do it.


the face of love

What does love look like? There’s no one right answer to that question, but just in the last week, several people have shown me a few of the small, sweet, personal expressions of love — and I mean expressions, gestures and acts that might as well be smiles or gently furrowed brows. Here are two of them. This is the very face of love.

1. I’m scheduled for oral surgery, and I idly mentioned to my mother that the recovery period will make me wish we had cable “so I could just plop down and watch ‘Columbo’ for a few hours.”

Yesterday, she presented me with a bubble-mailer containing nine hours of “Columbo.” Mom, who is not yet confident in online ordering or particularly savvy at online searches, tracked down and ordered me a gift (and, from her perspective, a reasonable obscure gift) just to give me some comfort and distraction.

2. A few nights ago, I got three hours of sleep before I woke up hiccuping — and the hiccups lasted more than two hours. Silly? Yes. Funny? Yes. Harmless? Yes. Annoying and exhausting and, eventually, painful? Yes.

When The Fella left for work, I had stopped hiccuping. A few hours later, he called me to check in, “to see how you’re doing.”

I never miss a chance for self-mockery: “Because I was hiccuping?”

He was so gentle: “Because I know you had a hard morning.”

And that is how love can look: even in the face of the silliest affliction, he made sure I was okay before unleashing any jokes.


A note for those reluctant to “redefine traditional marriage” — we do it all the time. Here’s a timeline for some changes to remove civil and personal inequities in the marriage law.

An actual “traditional marriage” would deny legal personhood to the wife, allow spousal rape, and deny the right to interracial marriage, among other tragedies. We as a society saw the injustice in these laws, and changed them accordingly. It’s time to do it again.

A tradition of institutional oppression is nothing to defend.


Grief follows hard on the heels of joy. Our family has gained a member and lost one, in quick succession. It’s a maelstrom of emotion, mixing up love and loss and celebration and sorrow — and that’s just this week. Who knows what next week will bring? Whatever it is, we’ll face it together. That’s what counts.

We cannot escape grief, nor should we wish to, because grief gives gravity to our happiness; it shows us the depth of our love by showing us how we would (and how we will) cry for our loved ones when they pass out of our ken.

But for the moment, I am not interested in philosophy or rationalizations or the graceful balance of grief and joy: I only want to love my family, old and new, and offer love and support, to take comfort in our shared laughter and tears and stories and remembrances, to supply gelato cones and handkerchiefs and hugs and a soft shoulder, should anyone need it.

what’s in a name

At a gathering of The Fella’s family — and let’s just call them The Beardface Family! — we had occasion to introduce a friend to The Fella’s mother. (For the sake of his privacy, here I’ll dub our friend Mike Smallbaker. That’s not quite right, but it’s the same construction: first name, and a last name composed of a common adjective and old-timey occupation.)

Later, The Fella’s Mother asked about his unusual surname, and The Fella told her that it was a hybrid: when they married, M. and his wife R. decided to combine their two last names into one.

The Fella’s Mother turned to me and, not for the first time, asked me, “So, Elsa, when you’re married, will you be a [Beardface]?”

Now, listen.

I am not changing my name, and The Fella’s Mother knows that, because she’s already asked me. We’ve had this conversation a coupla times already, and I’ve answered sweetly and earnestly. Twice.


This time, I said, absolutely deadpan, “No, actually, we’re doing what M. and R. did.”

TFM, game as always, said, “Oh?”

“Yup. We’re both changing our names to Smallbaker.”

My future brother-in-law, sitting nearby, laughed until he tipped off the edge of his chair. The Fella’s Mother, um, did not.

note: Though I’m razzing her a little here, The Fella’s Mother is a lot of fun, and she — like the entire Beardface family — has gone out of her way to welcome me from the first day I met them, and to shower us with love and affection as we approach the wedding day. I’m stunned and grateful to have such loving in-laws, and even more grateful that they can take a joke.


I recently wrote about a friend’s potluck wedding reception, where family and friends fed each other, sharing their joy and love with the happy couple. The Fella and I aren’t having a potluck wedding, but for the past few months, I’ve been musing that our DIY wedding feels like a barnraising: our loved ones keep enthusiastically pitching in, lending their strength and talents to help us build something of value.

If you browse wedding forums or advice columns, you’ll soon bump into shrill warnings against this approach. Naysayers dismiss the handmade, homemade, shared nature of the event. It’s tacky, it’s rude, it’s cheap. It’s inconsiderate to expect guests to contribute to Your Special Day.

Of course guests don’t want to do your dirty work, but you can accept loving assistance (and even ask for it) without being rude or demanding. Some thoughts guiding our own requests:

– Our friends miiiiight enjoy showcasing their talents. They would not enjoy predictable drudgery; we’ll pay people for that.
– Any guest’s wedding-day contribution should be brief. Everyone wants to have fun!
– Things will go wrong. It doesn’t matter. If the cake falls over, if the photos don’t come out, if the iPod freezes… we’ll still be married at the end of the day.
-If anyone seems hesitant, for any reason or for no reason at all, we’ll withdraw our request.
If we ask you to consider helping out, it’s because we value your talent and we trust your judgment. That includes the judgment that leads you to say, “No, I’d rather not.”
In fact, we’ve made few requests so far; our family and friends keep amazing us with their offers of help, offers far more generous, creative, and serendipitous than we could have imagined.
Behind the click is a loooooong list of the help being offered, and a few requests we plan to make.

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mailbox: a shameful secret

Having memorialized my late father, I must confess the dread, sorry truth that I kept from him as he lay on his deathbed. It was too horrible for him to face.

The dark secret is revealed at last: the door to their mailbox had come ever so slightly off its hinge, leaving the mail just barely exposed to the elements. When I walked down the long driveway and out the private road to the mailbox to collect Mom and Dad’s mail, I brushed a faint dusting of snow (or, sometimes — oh, god! — droplets of rain!) from the pile of envelopes and magazines before carrying them back to the house.

I never told Dad that the mail sometimes got damp. Knowing that would have been too great a strain on his mind.*

Shortly after Dad’s death, my brother-in-law J, a cheerful, practical fellow, rolled up his sleeves, yanked the old mailbox out of place, and screwed into place the shiny new mailbox from the hardware store! Yay!


Hey… yay, right?

Not, as it turns out, yay. At least, not according to my mother, whose disapproval of the new mailbox came out in sighs and gusts of faint dismay. The new mailbox, you see, was a bit larger than the old one, and it somehow violated the, I dunno, dimensional balance of the previous arrangement. And this was bad.

How bad?

In my mother’s words, “Thank God your father’s dead. He would have hated to see that.”

My mother, whose words were in earnest, was understandably puzzled when sister Gaoo and I dissolved into (equally understandable) frantic hoots of laughter. For months after (and still occasionally, three years later), our conversations were laced with the phrase “Thank God your father’s dead!”

*And if you think I’m kidding about that, you never knew Dad, never saw him get agitated about a scratch on a tableleg, or coasterless glasses, or spots on a book jacket. A mailbox door hanging ajar, and his infuriating inability to do anything about it, would have made him wring his hands in futile worry.